The language at a small graduation ceremony inside a federal office building in Washington Friday morning was militaristic: Fighting. Frontlines. Enemies. War.
For a fifth year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rather quietly has trained a small team of injured, wounded or sick military veterans for a different type of deployment - supporting the agency’s lesser-known investigative arm as analysts on child exploitation cases - the ones who will be able to take photos off a hard drive in a child pornography investigation, then help identify the perpetrator and build the case for an arrest.
"It is a battle. It is a war. And it needs to be,” said Daniel Ragsdale, ICE Deputy Director.
Since 2013, more than 100 veterans have learned computer forensics through the H.E.R.O. Child-Rescue Corps, an 11-week program in the nation's capital, followed by a nearly year-long internship in ICE field offices around the country.
Chris Wooten, a U.S. Army ranger who was injured in a helicopter crash seven years ago while serving with a special operations regiment in Afghanistan — his fifth tour in Iraq and Afghanistan — felt like the program could return that sense of purpose and pride he felt serving in the military.
“I did have a lot of buddies who weren't able to make it home, that were killed overseas or even individuals that took their own lives when they made it back just because they didn't have that sense of purpose anymore,” he explains after the ceremony, before flying home to southwest Florida, where he starts his internship next week.
“I think this opportunity, even though we're all wounded and can't do our military job anymore, that this program allows us to serve our country again, and not only that, but help save some kids."
It’s unpaid work that first year, working alongside agents to find suspects and build the cases, often looking at graphic, violent content for clues about the perpetrator, the victim, or even the location. But the program regularly leads to job offers from ICE, according to an agency spokesman.
The collaboration between ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations office, U.S. Special Operations Command, and the National Association to Protect Children builds the ranks of child sexual abuse investigators, as law enforcement across the United States scrambles to keep up with networks of elusive online suspects — the ones supplying the images and the ones demanding them.
Non-profit organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that also work on these cases report that the trade in child pornography images is growing "exponentially." They report receiving thousands of requests from law enforcement agencies to analyze millions of images and videos in one year.
Ragsdale, the second in command at ICE, says there aren’t enough analysts to meet the investigative demand. The agency is only one of several federal bureaus trying to dismantle the online exchange of child pornography, and in the week before Friday’s graduation, it posted three updates on three such cases:
- “Tucson man sentenced to 10 years in prison for possessing and distributing child pornography”
- “Idaho man sentenced to 25 years on federal child pornography charges”
- “Southwest Texas man sentenced to nearly 16 years in federal prison for distributing child pornography”
“It's daunting to see case after case after case... when you see 100-year sentences or multiple life sentences,” Ragsdale told the graduates. “Unfortunately, it's still not enough. It's certainly not tipping the scale to dissuade people who abuse children.”
“You are joining a fight that law enforcement is having a hard time winning,” he added.
Chosen to speak for the class at the ceremony, Wooten’s voice faltered at the podium; he spoke about friends who died in combat or after returning home. He mentioned the veteran suicide rate in the U.S. — about 20 a day. He talked of “scars, visible and invisible.”
More than the adrenaline rush of military work under high stress, Wooten says with the investigatory work “you get that sense of pride back.”
"In the military, you’re very proud to serve your country. And this, you almost get a sense of pride that 'I’m able to handle the images,’” said Wooten, who at 29, is the father of five children. “I knew the struggle was going to be looking at horrible photos and videos that everyday people don't even know goes on.
“This job, I’m actually going out and saving kids and stopping bad guys, and help putting bad guys behind bars by analyzing evidence and different things that help them get a prison sentence,” said Wooten. “Before, I was just sitting at a desk basically doing paperwork.”